NHL 18 Review
This year’s EA hockey game adds a couple of new features but coasts the rest of the way.
The problem with EA Sports serving up the only version of video game hockey is that if the new NHL game doesn’t deliver much of anything new, there’s no alternative. This is one of those unexciting years. Compared to last year’s NHL 17, in which EA was able to provide some new modes and meaningful upgrades such as expanded creation options in EASHL, a Draft Champions mode, and a reasonably deep franchise experience, NHL 18 feels like a holding pattern. New or casual players will enjoy the raucous new NHL Threes mode and extra training features, but longtime fans will find only a few twisted knobs and some minor gameplay tweaks.
The only real bright spot to this year’s game is the NHL Threes mode, which is a zany take on the now-popular 3v3 overtime format in the actual NHL. Much like 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, which EA released a few years back, this mode allows for big hits, big shots, and all sorts of chaos. If you’re falling behind, the “money puck” can provide a quick way to catch up. These special pucks will allow you to gain a couple of goals at once, or gain a goal while taking another one away from the opposition. And with the next few pucks always visible below the scoreboard, there is an added strategic element to what goals matter the most.
It’s obvious that EA put a lot of effort into Threes.
It’s obvious that EA put a lot of effort into Threes, as it benefits from unique presentation aspects as well. There are unlockable arenas, including custom Threes arenas, and there’s even a Monday Night Combat–esque announcer who makes irreverent remarks during gameplay. It’s particularly funny seeing mascots enter the fray, and they’ll join the game between periods (with lots of fanfare). Threes is fully playable online against others, and you can also co-op with your friends against the computer. There’s even a nifty circuit mode which allows you to make your way across North America, upgrading your fledgling Fridge Raiders team as you take out opponents. The mode provides some novelty and lighthearted fun, as the pure chaos on display makes for some hilarious goals, net-front pile-ups and near-miss moments.
The Threes mode is perfect for new players, which makes sense given that the other area in which NHL 18 expands significantly is training options. This year EA has paired with Hockey Canada, and the returning on-ice trainer now extends to a dedicated training mode that explains how — and more importantly, why — you should do certain moves. It’s very helpful for newer players to have context for some of these complicated inputs, especially for faceoffs or dekes. By slowing down the action with real video, in-game tutorials, and practice sessions, a novice player can reasonably understand what a toe drag is or why they should use a backhand grip on a certain faceoff situation. These tips and videos are even stitched into the coaching advice during intermissions in every mode. This is subtle and smart stuff here, and I feel more sports game training features should start to go this route.
Once on the ice, however, gameplay feels very similar to the last couple of years. That’s both good, because by and large I still enjoy a lot of what’s here, and bad because it hasn’t rewarded me for coming back. Some changes are subtle but noticeable improvements: there’s good control in the passing game, and the slightly modified deking system now allows you to explore more one-handed maneuvers, kick-ups, and inside-out moves. These dekes are much more understandable once you try a few times in the aforementioned training mode, but mastery against human competition will remain elusive for all but the best. It is nice to finally see the computer-controlled players actually using some of these dekes, and they’ll even bank passes off the boards. It’s a small change, but better to have them using more of the toolbox than not.
The new defensive skill stick is long overdue.
Predictably, goals still come mainly off breakaways, slot one-timers, and rebounds, and the goalie animations are largely unchanged. The overall game flow provides familiar end-to-end action, with some grinding play behind the net and along the boards. The new defensive skill stick is long overdue, and now allows for stick sweeping when backing up, and you can angle the stick to block certain passing lanes or use that directional control to aim poke checks or kneel blocks. I’ve found this tool to be helpful in online games or against stubborn AI, as it really anchors you on defense.
These changes are more for advanced users, though, and most casual players are likely to leave them unexplored. Even when you know what you’re doing, the overall game flow doesn’t really change much because of them – not nearly as much as it would have if EA had, say, fixed the poke-check move to not be as overpowered as it has been in the past few years. Online or offline, this single defensive tactic remains too powerful. This one move has been the chief defensive tactic for years. EA Sports Hockey League games are plagued by it right now, and even the Threes mode has far too much of it – even from the CPU. There just isn’t enough limitation on or reprimand for spamming that action, and the way the puck will often stop dead after someone does a poke-check remains puzzling.
The NBC-branded presentation of the past couple of years has become even more stale than the gameplay, and it returns in NHL 18 basically untouched. The video intros and commentary team gave the NHL series new life when they debuted in NHL 15, but now very little is being done to refresh it. Sure, there a couple of new camera angles here and there, and the menu music isn’t entirely hockey rock anymore, but this holding pattern starts to stand out after a few seasons of the same thing. Nothing here is bad, but it’s becoming entirely too familiar. The fact that nearly all of the interstitials, post-game celebrations, and milestone moments look exactly the same as they have for years can only be explained away for so long. And here’s one that always gets asked: why are there still no more than two players in a standard goal celebration? It’s comical to even say at this point.
You can now design a mascot for your squad, complete with various animal heads.
Franchise mode hasn’t gone anywhere, and this year aspiring owners/GMs can participate in an expansion draft. With the Vegas Golden Knights entering the NHL, you can either play as them (or a different team) in the 31st slot, or you can play in a league that already has Vegas and expand as the 32nd team. I found it amusing to propose relocation right away as an expansion team (because that’s still an option, so why not?), and you can now design a mascot for your squad, complete with various animal heads, body types, and colors. Previous systems, such as player morale, meetings, ticket/merchandise pricing, offer sheets, and the trading block are all seen here, with subtle tweaks like allowing you to extend contracts midseason. The menus for franchise mode could still use some speeding up, as could the simulation of games, and the trade deadline still doesn’t feel like the event it is in the real NHL due to a lack of presentational focus around the actual day and no real scuttlebutt or rumour-mongering within the franchise interface.
Other modes, such as Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), Be-A-Pro, and Draft Champions remain about the same, with a couple of useful additions. HUT now allows you to go after challenges like beating specific teams, competing in in-game stat goals, or even co-op tasks, which grant mode-specific rewards and currency. A simple idea, but it adds an extra layer of motivation. The synergy system introduced last year is also back, with certain player combinations leading to bonuses for your team, and this continues to be a simple and effective way to organize your team around specific playstyles. Be-A-Pro adds the ability to ask for a trade during the season, which is pretty insignificant and about all EA Sports has done for it this year. Draft Champions remains largely untouched, with the existing themes (young guns, veterans, east coast, west coast) giving the same flavour to each 12-round fantasy draft. There’s nothing really new here, which is disappointing for longtime fans. Be-A-Pro, in particular, is begging for something — anything — to shake it up.
The EA Sports Hockey league maintains its status as the crown jewel of the online NHL experience, in part because it’s unopposed by new modes this year (except for NHL Threes). The action online has been smooth in every game I’ve played, as is usually the case with this series. As far as enhancements, they’re limited to the ability to add and customize mascots for your team, which makes good use of the creation features added in NHL 17 — but you’ll have to play many games to even do this for your team. You can also participate 3v3 matches in the EASHL now, but the team I play with found these matches too breakaway-heavy to really enjoy.
The existing unlock structure for player cosmetics remains in effect, and would-be EASHL stars can now add mouthguards to their appearance, as well as the usual sticks, helmets, hairstyles and player celebrations. The lack of any new character classes does sting, though, as it really seemed like EA had something cooking there but has since lost the plot. This limited gradation between classes leads to the aforementioned poke-check issues, as weaker defensive classes can spam this move without enough of a drawback. In other words, there are far too many power forward characters out there. I have a good time with the EASHL, but it’s hard to say that anything meaningful has been done to the mode this year, and it’s really coasting on goodwill at this point.